Sermon at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 10 September 2023 (Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity)
By Rt Revd Nigel Peyton
Law and responsibility
What are we to do when people behave badly? Matthew’s Gospel sets out Jesus’ grievance procedure – designed to satisfy the complainant, help the accused recognise the sin, and restore relationships.
The wronged person points out the fault to the wrongdoer. If they won’t respond to the grievance, then then it is suggested that several others support the complainant. All else failing, the circumstances are reported to the whole church. If the wrongdoer still denies fault, then they are expelled from the community of faith.
The prophet Ezekiel believed that God takes no pleasure in the demise of the wicked and would much rather that each of us turns away from wickedness. Matthew’s fledgeling Christian congregation of Jewish converts were perhaps wondering how their new-found church might differ from the Law and the synagogue they had left behind.
Jesus gave the Law fresh character, engaging with people’s lives – ‘you have heard it said, but I say to you …. the Pharisees demand this, but God requires something better …. go and do likewise’.
The Golden Rule, loving our neighbour as ourselves, is challenging. As a bishop I was once reprimanded by a church member, that I was failing to forgive and be reconciled with his priest. My reply was there can be no genuine reconciliation without truth, which at that time was proving difficult.
Jesus grounds reconciliation and forgiveness of sins in God’s mercy and warns of the foolishness of those who set limits on forgiving others. We are reminded of Peter’s question, but how many times should I forgive?
This is not cheap grace. There are dire warnings about the destination of those who cannot or will not own up to their sin and face the consequences. Hellfire and damnation, as portrayed in medieval Doom Paintings, reminding the congregation to behave well.
Extreme cases wake us from complacency. The convicted baby killer, Lucy Letby was clearly wicked and possibly sick. We cannot grasp why someone could do such things.
The motto of English Courts is Justice with Mercy, but it can be a difficult task Many people think, ‘lock them up and throw away the key’. There are some things which are beyond forgiveness.
Wrongful accusation is also difficult to forgive, as in the recent case of the man, wrongly imprisoned for seventeen years for rape. He was not released earlier on licence as rightly he wouldn’t admit to a crime he did not commit.
Again, the local Postmasters and Postmistresses wrongly accused of theft, occasioned by the Post Office’s faulty financial IT system. The stubborn failure to acknowledge their innocence, and grudging delay in compensating the lives they ruined, has been described as the largest miscarriage of justice in the UK.
Everyday justice is built on a sense of fairness and consensus. Recent experience shows that while people in Britain tolerate public figures sometimes being ‘economical with the truth’, we will not tolerate hypocrisy.
In Trials of the State, the Reith Lectures of 2019, Lord Justice Jonathan Sumption of the UK Supreme Court, warns against expecting too much from the law. Rather than taking personal and public responsibility.
The law once dealt with a narrow range of human problems, interpreting laws not making them. Today the law penetrates every corner of human life. We look to the law to justify political choices, moral judgments, professional expertise, and human activities. There is a corrosion of trust, and fear of legal liability. Despite whistleblowing, persistent cover-ups place the reputation of organisations above the needs of individuals.
Lord Justice Sumption believes that matters of public concern would be better debated, not decided in the legal system. English statutes fill 80 volumes. Hundreds of criminal offences are added each year. The last century has seen a seven-fold increase in lawyers in proportion to population (with all due respect to any here – be assured, I firmly believe in good legal advice).
Our courts are gridlocked, and justice delayed is justice denied. Many quarrels and disputes (some frankly so petty) too quickly go to court and could be clarified and settled without such acrimony and expense.
Church life is not immune from such things and is nowadays significantly more regulated. There is a painful awakening to bad things unaddressed. Sexual and spiritual abuse, bullying, deference, and abuse of power. We acknowledge terrible things happened, hidden under the guise of expediency, and totally lacking Christian integrity.
Safeguarding and Clergy Discipline procedures have serious consequences for bad behaviour. Yet we must ever be watchful. Just this week a Vicar shared with me her frustration with a churchwarden resisting essential procedures.
At first sight Jesus’ dispute resolution appears a bit lightweight for 21st century life, yet its simplicity has merit. Its core feature is calling out bad behaviour. However, at work, in our relationships and family lives we sometimes prefer niceness to truth. In church we call it ‘being kind or pastoral’ and it makes us feel better.
Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, ‘love does no wrong to a neighbour, love is the fulfilling of the law, therefore put on the Lord Jesus Christ’. This means taking personal and communal responsibility, applying greater honesty and common sense, facing up to bad things, and keeping minor things in proportion. Each day to make up and move on.
Matthew’s Gospel is littered with self-reflection: Jesus called out Matthew’s bad behaviour as a tax gatherer and turned his life around. Like Matthew we must start with ourselves.